ESSAY SIX the Butterfly Hunt
“Well, if all of us have wonderful ideas already, and we don’t need to seek elsewhere for inspiration, why do I sit there blankly when I try to draw, or write or compose? Am I just a dud or do I have permanent art block?” The short answer? No, none of the above. Maybe you’re just looking in the wrong direction.
To help me illustrate what I am proposing, I would like to present two analogies. The first will concern butterflies, and second, in the next essay, will involve sitting in your cave.
TO CAPTURE YOUR MIND’S BUTTERFLY.
For this exercise to have its full impact, I ask that you not only read the words, but also participate in the suggested exercises. It will help to have a drawing pad and some colored pencils, pastels or crayons. No drawing skill required, and you don’t have to show anyone your efforts!
Get in a comfortable position.
Imagine that you are reclining in a grassy field, in the late spring. It is pleasantly warm, and you are dreamily looking up, and see a beautiful butterfly hovering several feet above your head. There is a very gentle breeze blowing, and some of the grasses and spring wild flowers are barely waving and nodding, almost in time with the quiet movements of the butterfly. The sun is behind the butterfly, and some of the light seems to be coming through its wings and through the flower petals, making them glow with an iridescent radiance. At this point, stop reading and spend about two minutes (or more) visualizing this scene. Enjoy it. You certainly may add anything else to the picture that seems to make it more complete. When you are done appreciating your creation, open your eyes and read the next italicized set of instructions. DO NOT READ ON unless you are determined not to do the exercise.
Following are some exercises, but they will not mean as much if you did not try the visualization exercise above. It’s not too late to do it now before reading further.
Your next step will be to try to translate this wonderful, image into something more concrete. Read the following questions and then return to your visualization for the answers. Do not answer the questions from memory or make up answers.
On the butterfly’s left wing, what is the color on the upper left corner?
How many petals are there on the flower nearest to the butterfly?
Sketch the exact shape of the butterfly’s right wing.
Close your eyes and recapture the scene, and try to find the answers to the above questions. Do not read further until you have made the effort to transfer your image to paper.
For most people, this exercise is frustrating. There is no problem coming up with the beautiful image in your mind’s eye - it flows easily and is rewarding to do. It matters little whether your “dream image” was exactly as described or quite different - it is not the image that causes a problem. The good news: that image is an idea, and ideas are plentiful. You can form them whenever you give yourself permission, and their subject matter is everywhere.
For many people, the difficulty lies in attempting to take that gauzy, ephemeral dreamlike projection of your mind, and force it into a concrete form. As soon as you look at the top of the left wing and try and ascertain specifically what color is there (and what shape it is and what percent of the wing it occupies and what specific color is adjacent to it...) the hazy wonder of the image seems to contract and to be far more difficult to visualize. For most people, it also stops being so wonderful and starts becoming a difficult task with visions of failure looming large. If the assignment had also been to completely capture that image, in full color, on a piece of paper or canvas, very few would feel that they had been successful.
There are two things to consider here. The first is that it was not the idea that caused the problem - that image was easy to visualize, and wonderful to contemplate. Although most people are afraid they are not artists because of a lack of ideas, that is rarely the problem - everyone has more than enough ideas (more on recognizing and validating them later). The problems faced here were technical skills in implementing the idea - you were not able (or afraid you were not able which is even more threatening) to put on paper what you saw in your head. If there was failure, it was in your perceived technical ability, not imagination or vision, and the important thing to remember about skill is that it is learnable and will always show improvement if you do one thing - practice.
But there is a second issue to consider, and in reality, it cancels out the concern about your ability (or lack of) mentioned in the preceding paragraph. If you were frustrated in transferring your wonderful dream image into something concrete and substantive, it had nothing to do with your ability to “see” that color in the wing or even the precise shape of the cloud in the sky. You assumed that because your idea was wonderful, and you could picture it in your mind, it became necessary to literally transfer that idea onto the paper. Anything less would be failure. You made the common assumption that being an artist meant that you had to be able to almost take a digital photograph of your dreams.
What you attempted probably can’t be done (not by you, not by anyone). Even if you could do it, you would have accomplished nothing, because what made your dream image wonderful had nothing to do with the specific color of the wing, but rather with the impact, the image had on your awareness. Your image was wonderful because you created wonder in yourself, and that was the quality you should be translating. The reason “seeing” that particular color was so difficult may well be that that particular color was really unimportant to the vision. It may well be that it was the SHIFTING colors of the wing that held you in thrall, or perhaps the blurring haze of the flowers nodding in the breeze. It might have been the light or the warmth on your face from the sun, it might have been the memories that you superimposed over the scene from a vacation, a time with a lover or from your childhood. It might even had nothing at all to do with the butterfly, and your pleasure may well have resulted from the satisfaction of being allowed to dream. Any of the elements listed are what art is all about, and it has nothing to de with how well you are able to render insects. Unless you are commissioned to illustrate a field guide to butterflies of North America, art is hardly ever all about the literal subject matter.
The message here is simple; if you are trying to portray an abstraction (and ideas are abstractions), you must portray them abstractly. As soon as specific subject matter takes the place of symbolism and idea, you are thinking more like a camera and less like an artist. In the case of the butterfly image, perhaps we should have tried to portray our emotional response to the scene SYMBOLICALLY, rather than literally. What colors make you think of warm? What shapes make you feel tranquil? What objects make you think of being eight years old and Grandmas house? What are the colors, smells and tactile sensations of your lover? How blurred or sharp edged should your images be.
If you were to visit Africa and fall in love with the herds of Springbok and Wildebeest thundering across the Veldt at noon, going to the zoo and seeing one Springbok standing in a cement pen would hardly convey the same feelings. In a literal sense, it is a perfect “copy” of what you saw in Africa (a Springbok is a Springbok), but as art, it would be a failure. Perhaps the image you needed to produce while contemplating the butterfly would not contain a representation of a butterfly at all, but some other abstraction of what you felt. Subject matter is flexible and certainly not sacred, but images are.
These two points are important to remember, because they directly affect your perceptions of yourself as an artist. If you are not pleased with your results, it is important to differentiate between a “failure of idea” and a failure of technique and skill.” Ideas are what make you an artist, while proficiency and ability are learned activities - proficiency in any skill is a function of practice. If you want to hone and perfect your skill, why then practice the skill. It is that simple.
It is equally important to differentiate between idea and subject matter. If your goal is to practice your skill by making detailed sketches of an oak tree, it is well and good to evaluate your progress by comparing your efforts to the “real” tree. However, if your goal is to capture a mood, an impression, a feeling or a emotion, you should be evaluating the symbolic or abstract qualities of your image, and allow the subject matter to be a separate issue.
What an artist has to offer, herself as well as the world, is not another drawing of a cat or a story about Mary’s love life, but an insight as to what cats (and Mary) are all about, and how they inhabit a person’s inner world.
If you have comments, insights or reactions (positive or negative) to my posts, I would enjoy reading them. E-mail or comments acceptable. firstname.lastname@example.org